Whooping cough outbreak reported in eastern Newfoundland

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A young girl covers her mouth with her arm as she coughs.
Forty-two cases of whooping cough have been reported in eastern Newfoundland since February, according to the provincial health authority. (Winnipeg Health Region)

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services has confirmed an outbreak of whooping cough in eastern Newfoundland, with more than 40 cases reported in the area since February.

The provincial health authority says most of the 42 cases of the highly contagious disease have been reported in schoolchildren, but the illness has also been seen in children as young as two months old and in seniors as old as 89.

“It’s something that’s present in the community all the time, but right now we’re seeing a little bit of a bigger surge of it locally,” Dr. Natalie Bridger, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with N.L. Health Services, said Thursday. 

She said it’s not unusual to see a surge in cases every three to four years based on waning immunity.

The Department of Education told CBC News in a statement it knows of six cases of whooping cough spread among five schools in the province.

The province normally sees just three to four cases of the disease, also called pertussis, in a typical year, but the Health Department said 50 cases have been reported across the province so far this year.

The disease typically starts with cold-like symptoms and is spread through close contact with an infected person through coughs and sneezes. Bridger said it often worsens with prolonged symptoms before things get better.

“That first phase lasts for a couple weeks, and then it moves into the phase where people would commonly associate [with] the symptoms of pertussis,” Bridger said. “That state can sometimes last for six or eight weeks.”

WATCH | Dr. Natalie Bridger describes the symptoms: 

Whooping cough is surging in N.L. Here are the symptoms

There are 50 confirmed cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, so far this year in Newfoundland and Labrador — normally, there are three or four annually. Dr. Natalie Bridger, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, says people should make sure their vaccinations are up to date.

Babies less than one year old and pregnant women in their third trimester are considered at a higher risk for infection.

N.L. Health Services has opened an appointment-only testing clinic at 50 Mundy Pond Rd. in St. John’s.

Testing will be available for individuals who are experiencing symptoms of whooping cough and those who have been in contact with confirmed cases. Appointments can be booked by calling 709-762-7852 or texting 1-877-709-0512.

A smiling woman with blonde hair and glasses stands in a board room.
Dr. Natalie Bridger, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with N.L. Health Services, said whooping cough usually appears in waves every three to four years. However, the amount of reported cases through May is drastically higher than a typical year. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Residents are asked to protect themselves by covering their coughs and sneezes, washing their hands regularly and staying home if they feel unwell.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald told CBC News in April that people should make sure they are up to date on their whooping cough vaccination.

The vaccine is part of the recommended routine childhood immunization schedule and school immunization schedule, but booster doses are recommended for adults and pregnant women.

Bridger said the province’s vaccination rate is quite good, with about 90 per cent of people covered.

But there are other parts of Canada where the vaccination rate is lower, she added, saying vaccine fatigue and anti-vaccine protests during the COVID-19 pandemic could also be playing a factor.

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